As a former resident of Lahore, and still a frequent visitor of the city, I can say that Cocoo's Nest (it is also called Cucoo's Nest, Cuckoo's Den and several other spellings and combinations, even on signs in the restaurant) is a must-go place - for the non-faint of heart.
Cucoo's anchored a resurgence of tourist life at one of the most interesting and historically significant areas of Lahore, sandwiched as it is between the Badshahi Mosque, the Lahore Fort and the Heera Mandi (the "DIamond Market" - Lahore's famous, and fading, red light district). Whereas Cucoo's once had the street pretty much to itself, hundreds of millions of rupees have gone into building a very nice, very lively Food Street complex. REAL Lahore it is not, but a pleasant walk it certainly is.
FIrst, the warnings: if you are really movement impaired, fortify yourself. You reach the dining levels of the restaurant ONLY by navigating an exceedingly narrow spiral staircase with steep marble steps. Narrow, as in two-people-can't-pass-at-the-same-time narrow. And, the dining levels are up 4 stories. To make it to the nest - the highest point (see below) - keep going for another floor and a half. I went this week, and my hip, healing from an operation a few months ago, is still bitterly complaining 5 days later after the arduous climb and the minimal padding on the chairs.
Second, they are not afraid of the mirchi (peppers) here, so if you are not a fire fan, ask them to dial the spices back.
Now, the delights!
FIrst, if you are able to make it to the top level of the restaurant (make a reservation), a wonder awaits you: You peer straight down into the Badshahi Mosque (with its minarets towering above), have a bird's eye view of the Lahore Fort, and can see the dome of the Darbar Saheb Gurdwara (Sikh temple) nearby. Go look off the back of the restaurant, and peer into Heera Mandi, and get a real slice of Lahori history. The top level really does take your breath away the first time you see it, and never fails to impress afterward.
Second, the food here is good - as in really good. You might see complaints here (mainly from Pakistanis) but my personal feeling is that the large variety of dishes here defy the normal Pakistani model of what a local restaurant serves and what the food should taste like. Some dishes (the Karahis, the excellent Handis) taste like you would expect. Other dishes are more Persian influenced and the variety of dishes is greater than at other places. Prices are in line for a "destination" restaurant, although cheap eats it is not. If you watch over the side (careful!) of the building, you might see part of your dinner ride up in a bucket from the tandoor on the street.
Third is the whole experience of going to this place. When you enter, prepare for an entire museum's worth of PG rated Hindu statuary, along with the owner's frank (but not explicit) paintings of the many "working girls" he has known over the years (Hussain-sahib's mother was a "diamond" in the Diamond Market as well). Once, a friend and I wondered by accident into his studio while seeking shami kebab and and naan, and saw hundreds of his paintings - an incredible experience, all told. Ancient carved wood bannisters surround the eating areas. And, if you are expecting a restaurant as clean as your grandmother's kitchen - forget that too unless granny was pretty liberated. But its OK - I am a scarred veteran of the Pakistani salmonella wars, and I have never gotten sick at Cucoo's, although I have at some of the nice hotels in town. Be bold!!! And remember there's always Cipro.....
Finally, there is the romance of being in a truly historic place. You walk down the street surrounded by sights and smells (and overloud music - the bane of restaurants everywhere) that are in the "that's what I came here for" category. Sure, there are gritty parts of the city, but Lahore has made Food Street into someplace you can come and relax - and really enjoy yourself. Top off your dinner with a post-prandial stroll through the gardens of the fort through the small door cut into the gate. Incredible.
So, break out your knee brace, take a Zantac and a couple of Tums and get ready for a night you will fondly remember for the rest of your life!
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